Cast: Parvathy, Tovino Thomas, Revathy, Poornima Indrajith, Rima Kalinga, Kunchacko Boban, Indrajith
Director: Ashiq Abu
The first film that came to mind after watching Ashiq Abu's Virus was not a Hollywood medical mystery. It was not the books of Robin Cook nor was it one of the many medical films in Malayalam. It was, strangely, The Avengers. Let me explain. The superhero franchise owes much of its blockbuster worldwide success for the way it's about a mission over individuals, the way cogs come together to form a wheel, right? But at least they had the crutches of it existing in a fantasy universe where a superpower can be called on to get them out of a tough spot. What about Virus? Here's a film that deals with real people and an extremely real situation that was widely covered in the media. Yet it manages to bring together dozens of important characters, multiple sub-plots and a shockingly good central theme to explain a complex disease in a way that anybody can get their head around the military-like exercise that went into controlling the Nipah virus. If Malayalam cinema took a crack at a multi-superhero movie while sticking to its true essence, it would look like Virus and the result is 'Marvellous'.
Take the wonderful negotiation scene where the district collector (Tovino Thomas) talks to a group of ambulance drivers who're unwilling to transport those afflicted with Nipah. It could easily have painted them as the villains. Yet even their voices are heard as it sympathises with the regular, everyday people who're just too afraid to help. Credit to much of the film's greatness must go to its writing. The screenplay has a way of unravelling the way a disease breaks. We're introduced to a character, where they stand in the scheme of the disease and then we get a moving flashback that tells us their entire story within minutes. Like the male nurse who has not been paid his salary who still turns up to help or the brilliant everyday rigours of a medical student who saves a patient while also dealing with the death of another, all within the scheme of his daily shift.
Even tiny scenes leaves an impact like the one in the car where three medical students wait for the lines from AR Rahman's Kadhalan to kick in. The moment Sreenath Bhasi's character realises they're listening to the Hindi version, he's appalled and his reaction is hilarious. It's moments like these that keeps the film from getting too coarse, too heavy to handle.
The first half establishes the ground reality of the disease and the people it affects. Yet the film morphs into a thrilling whodunit as they try to uncover the details of the 'index patient' or the first person to have caught the virus. The second he is revealed to be Muslim, that too with multiple phone numbers, see how easily people, especially those from outside the State, perceive a terrorist angle to the outbreak.
Which is when we really understand the complexity of the Nipah Virus. As people who consumed the 'information' as mere facts and figures, we're at once unable to understand the human side that goes into the dealing of such a calamity. Yet the mastery of Ashiq Abu's film is in the way we're inserted into the drama, not just becoming a helpless spectator not knowing what to do, but as citizens who realise how close we too could have come to the disease had it not been handled by these everyday heroes. I even caught myself covering my mouth in fear a couple of times. The religious angle in such a situation does not end even there. What about disposing of a body? Should all bodies be cremated for safety or should religious sentiments be taken into when it comes to the diseased? It's truly a miracle that a film could go into such depths without it ever feeling generic, without it feeling washed over.
What about the performances? One needs to watch Virus to understand where Malayalam cinema stands today. In no other industry can you manage to bring together so many top performers to tell a story, no matter how small the roles are. Like Soubin who acts his heart out as a person going through the symptoms, or Parvathy who plays a junior level medical officer whose importance is as big as the film itself. Even the camera work, by Rajeev Ravi, is stellar. Non flashy and unobtrusive, I guarantee you that your reaction to the use of red (and green) lighting will never be the same once you've watched Virus.
I wonder what the audience will make of the medical jargon, which is understandable given that we're dealing with medical professionals, but a tad too technical for the layman. I'm also unsure if its easy for everyone to keep track of the number of times we cut away from the central conflict to other timelines, but these are issues limited to the film's first viewing (there will be many more).
Have we found our film of the year or is it too early to call?